Labour needs to inspire voters

May 8, 2018

The results of local elections in Britain on May 3 were a disappointment to many on the left. The Labour Party, led by left-winger Jeremy Corbyn, was expected to reproduce its huge advance against the ruling Conservative Party in last spring's general election, but Labour's gains this year were modest at best.

Prime Minister Theresa May's Tory Party government has faced one crisis after another since its miserable election showing last spring--from the disastrous negotiations over Britain's withdrawal from the European Union after the 2016 referendum, to the Windrush scandal that implicated the Tores' callous treatment of immigrants who arrived in the UK legally, but don't have the documents to prove it.

Despite the collapse of the vote for the UK Independence Party (UKIP), a right-wing populist party that supported Brexit, the Tories lost votes and seats--but not by as much as was expected. The Liberal Democrats, Greens and Labour all made net gains--even after Labour was hit by a smear campaign, with charges of anti-Semitism because of the party's supposed efforts to attract Muslim voters.

So why didn't the Tories' problems translate into a continuation of Labour's surge? Seb Cooke unravels the meaning of the election results and the lessons they hold, in an article published at the revolutionary socialism in the 21st century website.

MAY 3, 2017: Theresa May takes to the steps of Downing Street. "I have just been to Buckingham mark the dissolution of this Parliament," she says. "In 36 days the country will elect a new government and choose the next prime minister. The choice you now face is all about the future...Give me your backing to lead Britain."

The right-wing press loved it. We were still in "strong and stable" territory back then.

A day later, and it was the local elections. Labour did badly. "Theresa on the march...May on course for general election landslide...Labour buried in their own backyard!" went the Daily Mail front page. By and large, this was the consensus. The other story was that UKIP voters (yes, all of them) would drift neatly over to the Tories. All May had to do was avoid contact with human flesh, not mention fields of wheat, and the plebs would vote her in.

Thankfully, some people kept their cool and released the Labour manifesto instead. Libertines fans started singing Corbyn's name, and everything changed.

Labour Party supporters rally in the lead-up to local elections
Labour Party supporters rally in the lead-up to local elections (Steve Eason)

It changed because the Labour campaign was insurgent, and it promised to upend the political consensus in Britain. It motivated all sorts of people. "I like [Corbyn] a lot...he has been saying the same thing for 30 years," a former UKIP voter told a focus group a week before polling day. The Huffington Post reported that Labour could enjoy a late surge in support from UKIP voters because of Corbyn's growing popularity. The campaign was remarkably successful in overriding the Leave/Remain divide and pulling in layers of disenfranchised voters from all places. It showed it could be done.

FAST FORWARD a year, and it's hardly surprising that people want a repeat of the general election campaign in local elections. The ultimate prize for these contests was not going to be fundamental change, but Labour might have hoped to significantly deepen the crisis for the Tories by wiping them out in London and elsewhere. This didn't happen, and the Tories have held on, although their losses across London, looked at objectively, do increase their problems.

Masking these problems for the Tories, though, is the fact that they did take Barnet. This has been quickly blamed on Corbyn and anti-Semitism. Some caution is needed here. In the Barnet ward with one of the largest Jewish communities--Golders Green--Labour won marginally more votes than in 2014, although their share of the vote is probably down. It would be surprising if the anti-Semitism allegations had no effect whatsoever, but the results in Barnet are not radically different from those in other areas where the Tories did okay. This suggests more general factors are also at play.

Local elections are not midterms as some people like to make out. Mobilizing the people required for a left election victory was always going to be tough in this contest. At the general election, it was clear to most people that a Labour victory would have meant a sudden and dramatic political shift, the biggest in most people's lifetimes. That's powerful, and it gets people out of the door. To accomplish such a feat in local elections is going to take more than a message that focuses on striking a blow against the Tories. Important as that is, it's not the same as saying you'll overturn decades of neoliberalism overnight.

For local elections to feel insurgent, you need concrete answers to the burning issues people face in their areas. For most people when it comes to local elections, that means cuts: to arts, to care, to transport, to parks, to libraries, to swimming pools and so on. It means privatizations and sell-offs too. Lots of councils--Labour and Tory--are now contemplating selling off parks to private-sector parasites so they can charge people to access space that's always been free.

MY LABOUR council recently sold our leisure facilities to a company called "Better." My kids used to have an "active card" that cost a small amount per month but gave them unlimited access to sports classes and facilities. Better took over, and all parents were told that their children would now only get one free class and the rest would be chargeable. The result of this: poorer kids do less sport; Better increase their profits. This is not uncommon, and it presents a jarring contradiction between the aspirations of ordinary people as expressed last year and the reality of most Labour councils on offer. A well-organized Momentum campaign doesn't change that.

Labour's national message has been good and clear. Their response to Windrush [a scandal caused by the Tory government's crackdown on undocumented people that has affected tens of thousands of immigrants who arrived in the UK legally between 1948 and 1971, but without paperwork to prove it] has been brilliant. But this alone does not translate into the local election success many had hoped for.

To change this dynamic would require a united commitment by Labour councils in conjunction with the leadership to radically alter politics in the way the party promised last June. Local politics can do this, and it might mean a commitment to fight the Tories over cuts, end the sell-off of assets and services, get big business out of local government, better social housing in the wake of Grenfell and so on. The scale of reversal needed from years of passivity in local politics is not on the radar of most Labour candidates.

But the material conditions that created the general election result have only deepened and sharpened since last June. There has been Grenfell, the collapse of Carillion, growing in-work and out-of-work poverty and the Windrush scandal to name a few. It is key for the left inside and outside of Labour to provide a clear response to this situation that takes aim at the Tories and the 1 Percent.

That has not been changed by the local election results. On the basis of these results the Tories would lose seats in a general election. Remember how different that is to a year ago today when May's landslide was a given. Things have shifted and her crisis lumbers on. But we know that for our side the awfulness of the Tories alone is not enough of a motivating factor. We have to win people with a commitment to smash the status quo that has delivered so much misery to ordinary people.

First published at rs21.

Further Reading

From the archives